KATE HOPKINS was not a whiskey expert when she took off for foreign lands to hunt down the perfect shot. She had fond memories of her father's love of Scotch, and she'd had plenty of experience with the more proletarian versions of the drink—downing Jim Beam in college, as students are wont to do—but memories and nasty hangovers do not an expert make. Hopkins was, however, curious.
What better way to sate that curiosity than by taking a world tour of whiskey lands and writing a book? The result of her journey, 99 Drams of Whiskey (to be released in paperback this summer), is jam-packed with charming stories, brilliant tasting notes, and a sensibility far below the ivory tower of whiskey snobbery.
The highly acclaimed internet gourmand behind popular food blog the Accidental Hedonist, Hopkins recently spoke with me about uptight purists and the best way for a beginner to start a love affair with whiskey.
MERCURY: You have a passage in your book where you say we're lucky we don't have to drink like a whiskey expert.
KATE HOPKINS: Absolutely! And this is not meant to take away from the professional whiskey tasters. They do shape the evolution of the drink, such as it is. But they, along with wannabe whiskey experts, are the ones who say, "You should never have a Scotch and soda," or "You should never mix Coca-Cola with Jim Beam," and it's just nuts. If you like your drink a certain way, then have it that way.
How should a beginner approach whiskey?
There are two routes, and it depends on how much money you're willing to spend. If you only want try it and learn to taste with one bottle of whiskey, I would recommend drinking it neat with a water back. If I'm unfamiliar with a certain whiskey, or its reputation is lower end, I try to go with a one-to-one ratio of water to whiskey [in the glass]. This isn't to dilute the alcohol; it's to see the foundation of taste left if you dilute it down to almost nothing. As I go on in the bottle, I'll reduce that ratio.
The other option is to just buy a fairly well-regarded bottle of whiskey. Then just put a whisper of water in it just to bring it up, and enjoy it that way. The risk is that you'll find out you don't like whiskey, and you just blew 100 bucks.
What is the water doing for the whiskey?
Well, if you put a drop of water into whiskey and hold it up to the light, you'll see oils just burst. It's really hypnotizing for me. Those oils have both aromas and taste to them. The flavor components are locked into those. So water is just kickstarting the whiskey, telling it, "Time to get up! Time to do your job."
Once a person has started tasting whiskey, where do they go from there?
It depends on whether a person wants to get into the elite tasting class or just enjoy the drink. If they want to go into the elite tasting class they need to expand their vocabulary, because they'll need to communicate the tastes they're experiencing somehow. If you're just going to try and enjoy whiskey, go hang out, sit on your porch, and have a good time.
Is there a whiskey you'd recommend people start with?
First off, I think people who want to explore a drink should know their own tastes. They need to determine if they like sweet, spice, lightness, or smoke. Those would be the four basic really high-level characteristics. So, from there, if you like the spicy you'd go toward rye. If you like the sweet, you go toward bourbons. If you like light, you'd go toward Irish. Know yourself first and move on from there.
What's your take on whiskey snobs?
Whiskey is pretty much a boys' club in the upper level, and trying to impede on the upper territory is difficult. It's okay to ignore them if you don't agree with them. Critics are only people who have an educated take on a certain subject. That education is available to all of us.
Go into the understanding and appreciation of whiskey with your own enjoyment in mind. You're not trying to impress other people with knowledge, you're going to try and sit back and have a drink with your friends, listen to some records, and chill out from a stressful day. And that's all whiskey is supposed to do.
Kate Hopkin's Top Three Whiskeys
Macallan 15 Year
Bushmills 21 Year